Why Sylvia Hermon didn't vote in the Digital Economy Bill

So, Sylvia Hermon was out on the campaign trail in Groomsport this evening, looking re-election for her seat in Westminster. I actually missed her as I was getting Sakura from Rainbows, but went for a quick walk to hunt her down to ask why she didn't even show up for the vote on the Digital Economy Bill. Nothing I write below has any intent to add weasel words to her intentions, so when I say "time better spent", I am not implying she didn't think the DEBill was irrelevant or a waste of her time. Essentially, she decided that, in the three days before parliament was dissolved and she was still able to act as an MP, her time would be better spent in her constituency, dealing face to face with with people with "emergency" problems. This seemed to include things such as OAPs who have hoods disrupting their lives, that sort of thing. I'm not sure exactly what an MP does to help that situation, but I guess that's something that's important. Her argument was that, since both Conservative and Labour were in support of the bill, it was going to get through anyway. Now, would it have been nice for my representative to show up, vote no as an act of defiance, make a stand, ineffectual though it would have been? Yes, of course. But in the three days of the wash up, should my representative do that instead of dealing directly with constituents where she feels she can actually make a difference? Well, I guess it's a moral call. She thinks that these unusual circumstances (washup, likelihood of a hung parliament etc) meant that she spent those three days in the place where she felt she could make the most real world difference. It's disappointing, but understandable. We are all hung up on the DEBill because it's the space we live in, it's something that genuinely affects our lives, so we want our representative to stand in parliament, reflect our wishes. Should we want them to do that in the face of impossible to influence party whips? It's a difficult decision. For the European election I tried to get an interview with someone from all the parties, to ask them why I should vote for them. Lady Sylvia has promised that I can do the same with her, sit down and get, on the record, her reasons I should vote for her and why, in a hung parliament, her single vote would actually make a difference.

Why I don't want background tasks on my iPad

I've been thinking about what I want to use my iPad for when it finally gets it's launch in the UK at the end of April. Casual browsing? Sure. Twitter. Yep. Email? Why not. But the thing I'm really excited about is as a magazine platform. I can't wait for Wired to launch and I would love if my other regular magazine, EVO, became available on the platform. I think this is where the iPad will really come into its own. So, why not background tasks? Lets face it, almost everything I will do on the iPad will be possible on my MacBook Pro. It would be almost trivial to bring out a magazine reading app on a desktop OS, but I don't think it works. When I'm on a multitasking OS I am constantly distracted by Twitter, email and the ease to go and look at something else. Where magazines triumph is in having an exclusive grasp on my attention. I could sit and read an issue of Wired for an hour, but only if other things aren't vying for my attention. By not having these distraction, I will be able to sit and use my iPad like a magazine, but without all that unnecessary dead tree detritus. My iPad will fill a different niche to both my iPhone and my MBP. I expect that, if the publishing companies do it right, my magazine (and maybe even newspaper) consumption will go way up and that this, along with ebooks, will be my primary use of the iPad. Can't wait. It's 2010 and finally it feels like the future is here.

On Food

Rescued from Posterous

Eating is an addiction. It may not be a chemical one like alcohol or heroin, but its hold is no less intense. Like those addicted to gambling, food is something in my life I cannot properly control. Why is this? What is it about food that I can't stop at an appropriate level? I have no other vices; I drink very little alcohol, I have never taken illegal drugs, I don't even take painkillers unless absolutely necessary. I don't gamble, I've never had so much as a single draw on a cigarette, so I can't understand why eating is such a problem. Perhaps it is because I don't have these vices that food is the only thing I have, but why should this be so? No doubt you could delve deep into Freud and talk about oral fixation, but I think it could be simpler than that. I've always had a small, but very close, family (only child and only grandchild). Many of my best childhood memories are tightly attached to family meals, celebrating, going out, general good times. This association between meals and happy memories is one I can't shake. Food, for me, is synonymous with good times.

For several years, in my late teens and early twenties, I struggled with borderline depression. I would spend days in slumps where getting out of bed was an effort, where I would cut myself and where the only thing I could do to relieve the feelings was to eat. It was a comfort, a way to short circuit my brain into something approaching a normal state. Although I rarely feel this way anymore, I now have a mindset where periods of inactivity are easily filled with a trip to the fridge.

Food makes me feel good, it coats my brain in a fuzzy glow of happiness. It is like a drug, I need constant stimulation to maintain the high. I can't resist the idea of multiple taste inputs. If I order Chinese, I can't just order a meal. I need to order two or three starters too because I can't stand the idea of only one taste, I need three or four. It's not so much the amount as the variety, but I hate to throw food out, so it all gets eaten.

How do I break this? A couple of people have said "allow yourself a treat or you won't stick to it", but this is an addiction. I can't stop at just one. You don't suggest that an alcoholic has the odd drink, they have to go teetotal. That's what I need to do. Nothing I eat can be non-diet food. Because if I start, I can't stop. I also need a support group, which is why I am doing this in such a public way. I have to look at you and admit my failings. Twitter and Posterous will be my confessional. My name is Stuart, and I am addicted to food.

How this will work

Rescued from Posterous

Ok, I'm going to make 2010 the year that I take my weight in hand. I've been overweight since I was about 15 and seriously overweight since I was about 21, meaning it has been out of control for over a decade. I've had enough. I want to be able to play for an hour in the park with the kids without getting out of breath. I want to be able to go into M&S or Next and be able to get clothes that fit me. I want to sit in tiny chairs in fancy coffee shops without feeling uncomfortable. And I definitely don't want to have a heart attack before I turn 40. I'm lazy, I know this, and I don't think that's something I can change. I rarely stick to exercise so I'm not going to pretend I'm going to do a daily walk or anything. Doesn't mean I won't, but don't bet on it. However, what I will be doing is cutting way, way back on the stuff I eat, especially those high in fat items that I love like pastry and cheese. I'll be cutting out "munchies" from my life. I'll be eating smaller portions. I'll be removing takeaways (sorry @niftynosh).

I'm going to do this in public. I'm going to bare my soul, keep nothing secret. I'll be posting my weight and clothes sizes. I'm going to snap a photo of everything I eat and post it here to give a historical record of what I did (and didn't do) right. I am going to be posting pictures of what I look like with nothing but a pair of boxer shorts (don't look if you don't want to see).

If I can't find the strength of will to do this, perhaps I can shame or embarass myself into it.

What do I want you to do?

Encouragement is good. Criticism is better. If I post that I've eaten a pizza, chastise me (exceptions allowed for birthdays). If I haven't posted, shout at me. I have a Twitter account for this: @stuartsdiet which is the easiest way to contact me. I'm open to suggestions as to the best way to reach my goal.

On the first of January I will be starting. On that day I will post the first pictures, weights, measurements and what I hope to achieve.

In the meantime, I'm going to stuff my face over Christmas :)

12 Days of iTunes App Suggests New Functionality?

Apple have posted their new iTunes 12 Days of Christmas app, which will let you know when their now traditional Christmas freebies are available. Something very interesting in the description of the app is this:
Allow you to download a free gift from iTunes direct from your iPhone or iPod Touch
Now, this could just mean that the app will open the link to the iTunes app to give you your free song, music video, TV episode, or movie. But much more intriguing would be if the app downloaded these directly into your iTunes library. Could we see Apple opening access to third party apps that can start to interact with iTunes library on the phone to add content? Imagine a band app that could add music directly to the phone's music library, or a YouTube downloader? Maybe a game that allows you to save replays to your video library? Sure, they would need to get through the approval process first, but opening this up to third party apps would be a great move forward. The free downloads start from the 26th of December, but the app  is available now and will send you push notifications when each download is available.

Talking to Politicians - Part 2: Steven Agnew, Green Party

First chat done and dusted. I should make it clear that these are most definitely not "political interviews" because I am, frankly, clueless. Instead, think of them as how the politicians would try to convince said clueless person they are worth voting for. Many thanks to Steven Agnew for taking over an hour out of May Day to talk with me, it is much appreciated. Download the interview

Talking to politicians - Pt1

To be honest, I've never paid much attention to the political process in our country, never convinced it really made much difference in my life. Terrible as it is, I've usually asked my parents who they are voting for and gone that route, assuming they were paying more attention than I. However, with the upcoming European election, I decided to see if the poltical parties would be interested in sitting down with the apathetic voter and try to convince them why they deserve their vote. The plan is to spend fifteen minutes or so with someone from the office of each of the people standing for election to the European parliament, record the conversation and make it available online, with the assumption that it may be of interest to those who, like me, don't really have a clue. Step one was the sending of this email to the addresses provided to the party websites:
I am an early 30s voter who has never been convinced that voting
really makes a difference.
I would be interested in sitting down with someone from the party
and giving them fifteen minute to convince me why they should get
my vote. I would like to record this and make it available online
for the many like me who are, shall we say, politically apathetic.
Please let me know if this is a possibility.
Stuart Gibson
I shall update if/as I get responses. For reference, the people standing for election are as follows (taken from http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/northern-ireland-european)
  • Diane Dodds (DUP) - Response from Clive McFarland (2nd)
  • Bairbre de Brun (Sinn Fein) - Reponse from Brian Keane then Niall Ó Donnghaile with offer to meet in Stormont (5th)
  • Jim Nicholson (Conservative/Ulster Unionist) - Response from Alex Kane to organise a meeting
  • Alban Maguinness (SDLP)
  • Ian Parsley (Alliance) - Phoned to say they were hectic this weekend, but would sort someone out next week, most likely Ian Parsley (3rd)
  • Steven Agnew (Green) - Responded in person (1st)
  • Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice) - Response from Sammy Morrison with campaign literature. Sent reply pushing for 1to1 time (4th) UPDATE: No, they won't talk to me.

Email Responses

Steven Agnew - Green Party

Hi Stuart, I would be happy to meet up to try to convince you and your readers/listeners that it is worth voting. However it is about more than just putting a number in a box, it's about playing an active role in your community. Similarly a politician has to do more than just turn up every few years looking for your vote. Blogging is part of active engagement. The internet has made 'community' much bigger but it's still community. Part of my inspiration for getting into politics was Jello Biafra's 'Become the Media' spoken word album. His message was simple "Don't hate the media, become the media" ie if your don't like the message you're hearing spread your own. Your doing that with your blog, I'm doing it through political campaigning. Anyhow, I'll try to save some for the interview. Am I right in thinking your based in Bangor? I could meet you in the Green Party office on Abbey Street on Monday at 4pm if that suits. Alternatively we can arrange to meet at Stormont some time. Let me know a time that would suit you and we'll chat then. Cheers, Steven.

Clive McFarland - DUP

Stuart, Thanks for your email to the party. It has been passed on to myself for a response. I would be happy to try and help you in what you are trying to achieve. I'd also be happy to talk to you at some stage. If necessary you can come here to our party headquarters and record something, or alternatively a phone interview might suffice. We're certainly keen to encourage everyone to participate in the democratic process and do whatever we can to increase people's access to politics. Regards Clive McFarland Policy Office FOLLOW UP Stuart, Just following up again after your last email - apologies that you had trouble replying. Technology has a habit of playing up at the worst times... I should be able to confirm with you tomorrow exactly what time would suit best to do the interview. Depending on where you're based there might be the chance of speaking to Diane in person if we were nearby at the right time. Again though I'd be able to confirm that more definitely tomorrow. Regards Clive

Alliance Party (sorry, didn't catch the name)

Phoned me to let me know they had a really busy week/weekend with paperwork, but weren't ignoring me and would sort someone out next week, which would probably be Ian Parsley because "he's good at these sort of things".

Sammy Morrison - Traditional Unionist Voice

Dear Mr Gibson, Thank you for your email. I have attached some information about the party and our candidate, Mr Allister. Should you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in them please do not hesitate to get back to me. Kind regards, Sammy Morrison UPDATE - response to request to actually meet someone from the party Dear Mr Gibson, I am afraid this is not possible. I am, however, very happy to answer any questions you may have via email. Kind regards, Sammy Morrison

Brian Keane/Niall Ó Donnghaile - Sinn Fein

Stuart a chara, I could make points by email but clearly that is not what you are looking for. Can you give me an indication of what part of the country you are in and I can try to arrange something. Is mise Brian Keane -- Stuart a chara, Your e-mail regarding an interview with someone from Sinn Féin on the issue of voting has been passed on to me. I would be happy to arrange something with you to get a chat on this issue. It would most likely take place here in Stormont in that suits you ok? I could also do it over the telephone, I'm sure you can appreciate it is a busy time for us in Sinn Féin, we are fighting an election in every constituency in Ireland and trying to convince as many people as possible to vote for change and a strong voice in Europe. Feel free to contact me to discuss the issue further. Go raibh maith agat, Is mise, Niall Ó Donnghaile

Alex Kane - UUP

Hi Stuart, I am quite willing to have a chat with you. Perhaps you could let me have a few dates and times which would suit and we can try and tie down a time? Regards Alex. Alex. Kane UUP Director of Communications

Central authentication - good for users, bad for usability

As most of you know, I have a fun little project called Twitlonger that talks to Twitter, including the ability to post to users' accounts. Until recently, I had to ask for user passwords to enable posting, something I'm not keen on doing because it raises an expectation of trust that, to be frank, I haven't earned from most people (this goes for all the Twitter apps). Now, Twitter have enabled support for OAuth for granting applications API access to your account, without the need to give up your password. It's nice and simple, you click an authorise button, get sent to Twitter which allows you to allow or deny access and get returned to the initial site. All well and good, solves the password problem, gives users control. At the minute, I control access to Twitlonger by getting users to sign in with their Twitter username and password. This is validated against  Twitter and things like password changes etc are pretty much seamless. Users will automatically be logged out if their details have changed since they were last at the site and logging in with the new details automatically updates the details in Twitlonger. Overall, I'm pretty proud of the login experience for Twitlonger. Naturally, I now want to implement OAuth support, which means I have two choices - get the user to grantTwitlonger access every time the session expires (irritating) or store the keys necessary to authenticate with Twitter and give Twitlonger its own registration system. Not one for duplication of functionality, I was thinking about having OpenID support, so users don't need to create *another* username/password combination. Then I thought about the process for the user to be able to use Twitlonger (for the first time, anyway).
  1. Login with OpenID
  2. Get sent to external site to authenticate OpenID
  3. Return to Twitlonger
  4. Authorise with Twitter
  5. Get sent to Twitter to authenticate API access
  6. Return to Twitlonger
  7. Actually get on with the desired task.
OK, so this should only need to happen the first time the user comes to Twitlonger, but it also means their first experience of the service involves visiting three different sites just to start the task in hand. On one hand, they will be having a much more secure experience, but from the user-friendly standpoint it will be horrible. I don't plan to find out how many people would lose interest before the end of the process. I will be implementing OAuth because it will make me feel a lot better about everything, but I'm afraid OpenID as well would be a step too far.

This is Why Retail is Failing

Nothing surprising will be revealed here, but it is just another example of why physical retail is going the way of the dodo and why it's their own fault. On Thursday I bought the new Mac Mini and had my usual wonderful experience in the Apple Store. This machine was to replace an aging (and recently dead) Windows box to take over media server and bedroom duties. As part of the process I was moving all my media files onto the new 1Tb drive. The only missing piece of the puzzle was a drive caddy to throw the old hard drives into. Normally, I buy stuff like this online but, since I wanted the job done over the weekend, I decided to check if PC World had what I needed without too much price gouging. A quick search revealed they had what I wanted, in a reasonable brand and only about a fiver premium over online prices once delivery was factored in. Stock check showed none in my local Bangor branch but available in Sprucefield. This meant around a 50 mile round trip but I had podcasts and the time. It's important to note that the online reservation service asks for a contact number and also says to allow for an hour before collection. So, 2.5 hours later I arrive at Sprucefield and (eventually) get someone to take my reference number. Unsurprisingly, as has been typical of my experience with their reservations, it wasn't ready, nor had someone gone to look for it yet. Ten minutes later the staff member returns and manages to grunt they don't have any and then stares at me. No apology, no explanation, nothing. I pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that I had made a 25 mile journey to get here and he wandered off to get someone who presumably did have some ability to deviate from merely stating useless information. A manager returned and, to his credit, at least apologised before letting me know they had one in the Bangor store he could get held for me. I sort of lost it at this stage, pointing out that if the staff had been doing their job properly and had bothered going to look for the item in the hour following my reservation they could have saved me the journey. I then asked what he was going to do for me and, after some humming and ahhing he offered a £5 reduction if I paid for it there and collected in Bangor. On the basis I had been happy to travel to Lisburn to pay full price I was reasonably happy with this offer. I questioned the manager on how they were showing stock and Bangor wasn't and, alledgedly, the online system doesn't show available stock if the system reports three units or less (though apparently PC World has terrible stock control and huge stock shrinkage). So, back I went to Bangor and collected my drive enclosure, a fiver better off (technically) but with two hours wasted unnecessarily. Ok, I've worked retail, this sort of stock thing can happen and, had I turned up 20 minutes after reserving and it hadn't been available, I would have been pissed at their online reservation system but at least couldn't have faulted the store staff. Instead, lazy staff who couldn't be bothered to check for stock when the reservation arrived (or in the 2.5 hours after) wasted my time, their time, cost them money because of the compensatory discount, created bad feeling making me even less likely to return and generated the small amount of bad publicity this post will produce. It's as if retail doesn't realise that treating customers poorly only serves to push them deeper into online purchasing and to recommend to friends and family that they do the same. This is how the situation should have gone. Reservation made. Within 30 minutes the store staff go to pull the item so it's ready for collection (they had plenty of staff, three of them were standing chatting when I went in). Staff discover item is not available, double check to confirm. Staff check availability in other stores. Staff phone me, apologise, let me know there is a stock error so don't bother coming up. Offer either alternative product they do have or tell me other stores that have the item I want. I say "great, Bangor store is two miles away", they transfer the collection order to Bangor and I go home a happy punter They don't lose £5 and I might even write "PC World in awesome customer service shock" blog post. DSG has been losing money hand over fist even before the current financial woes, they should be focussing on how to retain customers instead of driving more of them away. I will pay more for the convenience of buying locally, not having to wait on deliveries and getting to look at things in advance, but only if the experience is pleasant. The Apple Store makes retail a pleasure, many other places make retail a pleasure but the majority of retail is notable for sullen staff and difficulty in actually buying what you want. In a difficult market the ones who do it right will succeed, but those who have been coasting on the buoyant economy will be following Woolworths into the dead pool.

The H1 Debate

Paul Randall and Ollie Parsley have created www.h1debate.com, a site that is asking the Twitterverse what they think the <h1> tag in HTML should be used for. One side of the argument postulates that H1 should be used for marking up your logo or company name and the other side suggests it should be used as a main title, for example the title of the particular page. Currently they have a little over 200 votes based on the Twitter hashtags #h1logo and #h1title, with title commanding a very healthy 75% of the vote. And guess what, I think that 75% are wrong. Let me explain why...

H1 - H6 are used for marking up headers in HTML. These can be section headings, post titles, whatever needs differentiated as a unique section of the page, with the numbers expressing the relative importance of the section. From the W3C definition for HTML4:
A heading element briefly describes the topic of the section it introduces. Heading information may be used by user agents, for example, to construct a table of contents for a document automatically.
The argument I believe some people put forward to not use it for the logo/company name is that it should be used for the most important section of a page i.e. telling you what the page is about. I would argue that a page on a site is a sub category of the overall site structure and therefore the company/site name is the defining piece of information to describe the page. Typically, I will mark up a page logo inside an h1 pair with the assumption that, if images are disabled, the alt text with the company name will therefore be displayed with h1 styling, making it the most prominent heading on the page. (We can get into the discussion of displaying header text off-screen for SEO at another time.) Let's take a fictional example. Assume there is a company called, I don't know, Disney. We can assume they make insipid yet strangely compelling children's movies. Let's also assume that brand recognition is pretty important to them. They might have a site that looks like this:
The H1 Debate
It'll probably all be done in Flash, because kids like shiny things, but they could well have a plain HTML version too:
The H1 Debate
It is clear in both versions of the page they regard their company name as pretty important, it defines what the page content is about. Let's take another look at the HTML version of the page, this time without any styling applied:
The H1 Debate
Look at that, top of the page, loving cradled by a brace of h1 tags is the company name, the most important element on the page. Don't for a minute think that I believe Disney to be the paragon of web design, or one whose decisions should be taken as gospel, but it clearly illustrates my belief that, if you take a page out of all other context, the site title/company, not the page title, is the defining element. Things get even more interesting when you start to look at HTML5 (not that the spec is finished yet, or reliably supported). It introduces a number of semantic elements such as <section>, <nav> and... <header>.  Many people are excited as they will be able to use <header> to replace the standard <div id="header"> that most people find themselves using to represent a header on a page, which normally contains elements consistent across a site, including logo etc. The <header> element must contain at least one h1-h6 tag as a child element. You could argue that the page title could be included in this section to fulfill this requirement and be placed under the logo or company name, but looking at the HTML5 working draft we find:
The rank of a header element is the same as for an h1 element (the highest rank).
My argument is this: is the title of a page the most important element to you. If you were forced to create a site using nothing but <h1-h6> and <p>, would you omit the name of the site or rank it at a lower level than the title of the page? You can register your side of the argument by making a tweet with the hashtag #h1logo or #h1title and they will automatically pick up on it. You can also follow @h1debate on Twitter.

UX - It's the Little Things

Some of my favourite user experience examples are the really tiny ones. Ones that you know that a little extra thought has been put into it. Apple are the masters at these sort of UX tidbits and this one I discovered recently when setting a recurring alarm on my iPhone. You can select the days the alarm will sound and, when you return to the list of alarms set it tells you which days it will sound.

Things get a little special when you choose the alarm to go off on Monday through Friday, or just on Saturday and Sunday, or all seven days. In these case the summary uses nice, natural language. "It doesn't say Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri", it says "Weekdays". Instead of "Sat, Sun" you get "Weekends" and, of course, "Every day" when that is applicable.

It doesn't make a huge difference, but presenting this sort of information in a more human friendly way helps everyone save a little time and thinking and puts a smile on the lips of people who appreciate the extra effort put into UX.